BLACK BEACH ENCLAVES SEE­ING SHARP IN­CREASES

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Troy Mc­mullen

His­tor­i­cally black beach enclaves from the Hamp­tons in New York to Amer­i­can Beach near Jack­sonville, Fla., are see­ing sharp in­creases in devel­op­ment and new home­buy­ers. Like gen­tri­fi­ca­tion de­bates rag­ing in ur­ban ar­eas across the na­tion, the in­crease in new money is spark­ing con­cerns about a pos­si­ble loss of black cul­ture and iden­tity.

Sag Har­bor Hills and the neigh­bor­ing dis­tricts of Ninevah Beach and Azurest are unique among beach com­mu­ni­ties in the Hamp­tons, the col­lec­tion of af­flu­ent towns on the eastern end of New York’s Long Is­land long known for at­tract­ing wealthy sum­mer res­i­dents.

Founded in the vil­lage of Sag Har­bor af­ter World War II, in an era of deep seg­re­ga­tion in the United States, they were home to a ro­bust African Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion. De­vel­op­ers of­fered parcels of land in parched ar­eas of the vil­lage for just a few hun­dred dol­lars or more. Work­ing­class black fam­i­lies pur­chased much of the land, even­tu­ally cre­at­ing sev­eral com­mu­ni­ties linked by dirt roads along Route 114.

Though their roots are work­ing class, these neigh­bor­hoods of mod­est ranch houses and bun­ga­lows today are a haven for mid­dle-class and up­per mid­dle­class black fam­i­lies, pop­u­lated by doc­tors and lawyers, artists and aca­demics. They rank as the old­est African Amer­i­can de­vel­op­ments in the Hamp­tons and are among a hand­ful of beach com­mu­ni­ties in the United States with African Amer­i­can roots.

The racial makeup of the dis­tricts kept home prices down for decades with many white buy­ers choos­ing to live in other parts of the vil­lage.

Yet that is chang­ing as home prices in the Hamp­tons con­tinue to rise, says Dianne Mcmil­lan Bran­nen, a bro­ker with Dou­glas El­li­man who has lived in Ninevah for more than 25 years. “In­vestors are be­ing lured to these ar­eas now and are look­ing for bar­gains,” she says. She es­ti­mates that about a dozen homes sold to in­vestors last sum­mer, up from four or five the pre­vi­ous year. “We wel­come in­vest­ment, but there is a real con­cern that these ar­eas will lose the cul­tural iden­tity that made them dis­tinc­tive.”

Sag Har­bor is not alone. Across the coun­try, some his­tor­i­cally black beach com­mu­ni­ties that have long es­caped ma­jor prop­erty devel­op­ment and an in­flux of real es­tate in­vestors are in­creas­ingly fend­ing off both.

Fears of loss of cul­ture

As val­ues soar in sur­round­ing lo­ca­tions, pric­ing out many sec­ond home buy­ers, his­tor­i­cally black beach enclaves from Amer­i­can Beach near Jack­sonville, Fla., to South Carolina’s ru­ral Sea Is­lands are see­ing sharp in­creases in devel­op­ment and new home buy­ers.

Like gen­tri­fi­ca­tion de­bates rag­ing in largely ur­ban ar­eas across the na­tion, the in­crease in new money, along with a gen­er­a­tional shifts, is spark­ing con­cerns in some his­tor­i­cally black beach com­mu­ni­ties about the pos­si­ble loss of their cul­ture and iden­tity.

“The irony is that many of these places were deemed un­de­sir­able when African Amer­i­cans first moved there,” says his­to­rian An­drew W. Kahrl, au­thor of “The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Be­came White Wealth in the Coastal South.”

His­tor­i­cally black beach com­mu­ni­ties date back as far as the 1930s in a hand­ful of coastal ar­eas across the United States. Many sprang up dur­ing seg­re­ga­tion when blacks were ei­ther barred from whites-only beaches or sim­ply un­wel­comed. While most were in the South, many took shape in the North­east and up­per Mid­west, evolv­ing into beach­heads for thriv­ing eco­nomic and so­cial life for African Amer­i­cans.

Au­drey Davis grew up spend­ing her sum­mers in High­land Beach, a his­toric African Amer­i­can en­clave near An­napo­lis, Md. The town was a haven for af­flu­ent black Wash­ing­to­ni­ans seek­ing refuge from seg­re­ga­tion and drew many black in­tel­lec­tu­als in­clud­ing Paul Robe­son, Booker T. Wash­ing­ton and Langston Hughes.

The pres­sure to sell

Her grand­fa­ther, teacher and au­thor Arthur P. Davis, pur­chased the land in the 1940s and built the wooden, two-story home that her par­ents still own today. “It was ac­tu­ally made from re­claimed wood from a whites-only ho­tel across the street,” says Davis, who is di­rec­tor of the Alexan­dria Black His­tory Mu­seum in Vir­ginia. “Our whole fam­ily would gather there in the sum­mer be­cause we cher­ished the sense of com­mu­nity.”

But, she says, there is not a month that goes by that her par­ents do not re­ceive a let­ter or two in their mail­box ask­ing if they would con­sider sell­ing the house. The once-re­mote lo­ca­tion of High­land Beach is slowly grow­ing more in­te­grated, with about 20 white and five His­panic res­i­dents mak­ing High­land Beach their home, ac­cord­ing to cen­sus data.

“Younger peo­ple look­ing for an af­ford­able home on the wa­ter are mostly in­ter­ested in the area,” she says. “My hope is that newer peo­ple to the com­mu­nity will have the same sense of its his­tory and im­por­tance as we do.”

African Amer­i­can home­own­er­ship along South Carolina’s Sea Is­lands dates to 1865 when the Union army is­sued or­ders to give freed black men the is­land chain and aban­doned rice plan­ta­tions. De­spite decades of de­cline, fu­eled by rav­aging storms and overzeal­ous devel­op­ment, a dwin­dling num­ber of black fam­i­lies still live and work on the is­lands today.

Known as the Gul­lah, they are de­scen­dants of en­slaved Africans who lived in the Low­coun­try re­gions of South Carolina, Ge­or­gia and Florida.

A firm pop­u­la­tion count of blacks on the Sea Is­lands is dif­fi­cult to ob­tain. But as part of an ap­pli­ca­tion for pro­tected sta­tus in 2005, the Gul­lah/geechee es­ti­mated their to­tal pop­u­la­tion in the Caroli­nas, Ge­or­gia and north­ern Florida at 200,000, ac­cord­ing to Mar­quetta Good­wine, co-founder of the Gul­lah/ Geechee Sea Is­land Coali­tion.

Though much of the is­land chain in South Carolina has been de­clared a Cul­tural Her­itage Cor­ri­dor by the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, that has not stopped de­vel­op­ers from chip­ping away at water­front lo­ca­tions.

“They’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the de­vel­op­ers, but when you have a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar devel­op­ment com­ing into an area, it’s al­ways going to be an un­equal con­ver­sa­tion,” says Bernie Mazyck, pres­i­dent of the South Carolina As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­mu­nity Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tions.

Oak Bluffs, Mass., a sliver of Martha’s Vine­yard that is home to a lively African Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion, has long at­tracted wealthy sec­ond home buy­ers. But the town holds a unique his­tory for African Amer­i­cans.

Lo­cated seven miles off the Cape Cod coast­line, on the north­ern tip of the Vine­yard, its har­bor drew freed slaves and la­bor­ers in the 18th cen­tury and white lo­cals sold them land. The town even­tu­ally be­came a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for freed blacks, who came to work in the fish­ing in­dus­tries.

“Younger peo­ple look­ing for an af­ford­able home on the wa­ter are mostly in­ter­ested in the area. My hope is that newer peo­ple to the com­mu­nity will have the same sense of its his­tory and im­por­tance as we do.” Au­drey Davis, who grew up spend­ing her sum­mers in High­land Beach

Cheriss May, For The Wash­ing­ton Post

His­toric black com­mu­nity of High­land Beach in Mary­land is slowly grow­ing more in­te­grated, with about 20 white and five His­panic res­i­dents now mak­ing it their home, ac­cord­ing to cen­sus data.

Pho­tos by Cheriss May, for The Wash­ing­ton Post

High­land Beach, a town on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay near An­napo­lis, Md., was founded in the sum­mer of 1893 by Charles Dou­glass, Frederick Dou­glass’ son, and his wife, Laura, af­ter they had been turned away from a restau­rant at the nearby Bay Ridge re­sort be­cause of their race.

Arthur and Deloris Davis and their daugh­ter, Au­drey, stand out­side the High­land Beach, Md., home that has been in their fam­ily since 1954. Their next-door neigh­bor, Joseph "Tex” Gathings, stands be­hind them on the screened-in porch.

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